Tuesday, January 23, 2024

It’s Tuesday, January 23, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

So, Why is the New Hampshire Primary So Important? And Why Does the State Historically Go First?

Well, last week we had the Iowa caucuses. They were clarifying, but today the New Hampshire primaries and on the Republican side, well, the stakes are really, really high, but there’s also a lot of history here and a lot of worldview. So let’s think about the history for a moment. The New Hampshire primary has been vitally important in terms of the Republican presidential process going back about a hundred years. But for both parties, going back to the mid-century, the New Hampshire primary became the first primary and often the most important. At least in terms of the fact that a lot of candidacies crash in New Hampshire because the big question is not only who wins but who survives the primary. Now this year, of course, all the action, and that has a little bit of a footnote, but nonetheless, in reality, all the action is on the Republican side.

That’s because there is an incumbent Democratic President of the United States. That’s reason number one, that the Democratic side isn’t seeing much action. But there is actually another reason why there is no major Democratic primary, and that is because the Democrats under the leadership of their incumbent President Joe Biden, have decided to move the first primary in which delegates will be counted from New Hampshire to South Carolina, not an accident. Couple of reasons there. Number one, the party has argued for a long time that New Hampshire is not representative of the Democratic electorate. Now, you might question whether New Hampshire’s really representative of the Republican electorate, but nonetheless on the Democratic side, the point’s actually quite accurate because as you look at the Democratic Party, it is far more diverse in many ways than what is represented in the state of New Hampshire. But there’s a second reason, and it has to do with the fact that it was in South Carolina in 2020 that Joe Biden really gained the nomination.

Now, he didn’t do so immediately by winning the South Carolina primary, but it was the crucial turning point in his race for the 2020 Democratic nomination. It’s not a coincidence that there is a very high ratio of African-American voters in South Carolina, very low in New Hampshire. And it was the support, the vital support of a major African-American political leader that is representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina that really threw the momentum behind Joe Biden in 2020. But it’s not just about Joe Biden, it really is about the Democratic Party. And at least as someone on the other side of the fence, I would say that the Democrats are probably, well-served not to look to New Hampshire as their first primary. But for those two reasons, take the Democratic side really off. A little footnote there, as I said, we’ll be back to it, but the big action is on the Republican side. And the big action right now is all of a sudden really reducible to two, the two major candidates, former President of the United States, Donald Trump.

He won the 2016 Republican primary in New Hampshire, by the way, and Nikki Haley, his former United Nations ambassador, and of course also a former governor of South Carolina. Now, as we think in worldview terms, we need to recognize that there are all kinds of things for us to consider here. Number one, the partisan reality. We have two major political parties. They have to have some system for determining who will be the nominee of their party for a presidential race. It used to be largely an insider game, but that changed. And New Hampshire, by the way, is an illustration of how it changed. If you go back to the early 20th century, all the voters in New Hampshire were voting for even in the primary were delegates. That is to say they were voting for people who were neighbors and had names. They weren’t voting for particular candidates. That changed about the midpoint in the century, and that changed American presidential politics.

All of a sudden in the primaries and this means first of all, New Hampshire in the primaries, voters were voting for particular candidates. That was a huge game changer. There have been absolutely remarkable moments in American politics in the snow of New Hampshire. And yes, generally there is snow about the time of the New Hampshire primary, and at the same time, there’s just an awful lot of tradition. Now, some of that tradition has to do with the determination of the state of New Hampshire that it will be the first state to have a primary, and that’s been a pride of place in the political process. As one veteran New Hampshire politician used to say, “Iowans pick corn, voters in New Hampshire pick presidents.” And well, historically, it’s fair to say sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But nonetheless, they are first. Interesting story is told by John Sununu, the father of the current Republican governor. John Sununu was governor of New Hampshire back in the 1980s.

He would later become Presidential chief of staff to President George HW Bush. John Sununu like his son, Chris Sununu more on him in just a moment, the incumbent governor. They’re both moderate Republicans. But as an anecdote, at one point, John Sununu the governor, was in a conversation with former Florida governor Reubin Askew, who was intending to run for the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination. Now, Reubin Askew had a plan for gaining advantage in the Democratic race. His plan was to move the first primary spot to Florida. John Sununu told him that wasn’t going to happen, and it wasn’t going to happen because of provision B. Sununu again. Then the New Hampshire governor and a Republican explained to rein askew the Democrat, that if a state like Florida decided to hold its primary before New Hampshire, the governor of New Hampshire had the authority simply to assign all the delegates of the party delegation on the side that had jumped the primary.

And clearly that was a threat to Reubin Askew. If you move Florida’s primary earlier than the New Hampshire primary is going to have no votes for you. But as for provision B, it’s also important to note that Reuben Askew was a lawyer. So he went to the law books. He wanted to look up provision B and see exactly what it said. He went to the law books in New Hampshire and discovered there was no provision B, but he got the point. The New Hampshire governor had simply made it up, but he made an emphatic point. And the legislature in New Hampshire actually passed a law saying that it must be the first primary, and if some other state tries to jump it would move even earlier. But all that has come to an end on the Democratic side. But as for Republicans, Republicans are still pretty happy for New Hampshire to be the first primary, and there’s a reason for that too.

New Hampshire is, at least historically, a very powerful Republican state. It punches way above its population. Population of New Hampshire is only about 1.3 million people, but there’s something else about New Hampshire, and that is the fact that almost all politics in New Hampshire is retail politics. Now, we talked about that as we were looking at the Iowa caucuses, but the New Hampshire primary is an even more historic way of stating emphatically, you’re going to have to knock on a lot of doors. You’re going to have to talk to a lot of citizens. You’re going to have to make your case. And if you can’t do it standing in the snow of New Hampshire, you’re not going to be President of the United States, particularly on the Republican side. Now, on the Republican side, it’s important to note that in the last several months, Republican candidates have spent almost $80 million organizing and advertising in New Hampshire.

Another important point about New Hampshire, it has a great percentage of rural population. It’s a very distributed population. Really one major city, Manchester and one major internal media market. So you can get an awful lot for $80 million. And it’s important to note that in the last several days, candidates have spent $10 million. So this means Republican candidates or organizations supporting Republican candidates. And in the main part that meant over the last several days, that was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has since dropped out. South Carolina, former governor Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump. $10 million in the last week according to some media estimates. And now put that over against the fact that if you look at the Republican delegates from New Hampshire, by the time they get to the National Convention, those New Hampshire delegates will amount to less than 1% of the total delegates. That’s an extremely expensive delegation.

But then there’s a very important issue which sets New Hampshire apart, not only from, say, the Iowa caucuses, but from most of the later Republican primaries. And that is that the state of New Hampshire, given its own political eccentricities, allows undeclared or independent voters the right to vote in either party’s national primary every four years. Now, that leads to a lot of volatility in the New Hampshire primary process that has not historically appeared elsewhere, so that wouldn’t amount to much. However, if there aren’t that many undeclared or independent voters in New Hampshire. But here’s the point, there are a lot. 40% of the voters in New Hampshire are either undeclared or independent, which means that 40% of the population eligible to vote could choose tomorrow to vote in, this is what’s most important, the Republican presidential primary. Now, why would that be such a big impact? Well, it’s because if you look at the two candidates, Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, Nikki Haley has intentionally reached out to independents for their vote.

If that is successful, then her vote in New Hampshire will be lopsided compared to what would be possible in other states. Will it be enough to seriously challenge Donald Trump? The polls at this point are not indicating that it will be, but here’s the problem. The polls in New Hampshire are inherently unstable because of the possibility of those independent voters deciding to vote in the Republican primary. Furthermore, it turns out the New Hampshire voters often really don’t like to be polled anyway, so it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens. We will know only when the votes are counted tomorrow night.

Part II

‘Not Many of Us Go to Church Here’: Turns Out That Makes a Big Difference, For Example, on the Issue of Abortion

But there are two additional issues, vast and worldview significance we need to think about when it comes to the New Hampshire primary. As you’re looking at New Hampshire, you’re of course looking at the northeast of the United States, Yankee America. And increasingly New Hampshire has become a more blue state, which is to say more predictably democratic.

It’s actually become more liberal. As I mentioned earlier, even on the Republican side, it’s been a fairly moderate state that’s using the term that the media will most often use and political pundits. It’s been a moderate state on social issues. Now, even weeks ago, people were looking at the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries among Republicans and saying, well, here’s the difference. In Iowa, you’re going to have a lot of evangelicals voting. In New Hampshire, not so much. In Iowa, abortion’s going to be a big issue. In New Hampshire, not so much. Actually in New Hampshire, it’s hard to predict exactly how the abortion issue plays out politically, and that’s especially too on the Republican side. There is an independent libertarian streak in New Hampshire republicanism, and there is also a more moderate streak on these social issues. But it is really interesting that at least one observer thinking very carefully about the situation in New Hampshire says there is a theological aspect to this as well.

Jane Coaston writing for the New York Times asked the question, how did New Hampshire shift to blue-ish? And then she reports on an interview she conducted with Dante Scala, who is a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, and in her words, “An expert in presidential primaries and New Hampshire politics.” Now, Coaston asked the question, what separates New Hampshire Republicans from Iowa Republicans in terms of their outlook, their interests, their backgrounds? We might add to that, their worldviews. Now, here’s the most crucial sentence in the professor’s response explaining the difference between Iowa and New Hampshire. He said this, “Very few people go to church here or any kind of religious services regularly, and coincidentally, we tend to be, and this includes Republicans rather socially moderate on issues like abortion and gay marriage.” The professor went on to say, “A typical New Hampshire Republican, I would say, wishes that the abortion issue would just go away. Do we really have to talk about this so much?”

Well, we knew that that was a reality, but it’s very interesting to have this affirmed by this academic at the University of New Hampshire and published in the New York Times. He says, look, you want to know the difference between the typical Republican voter in Iowa and the typical Republican voter in New Hampshire that voter and I was a lot more likely to go to church. Now, we asked the question, how much more likely the answer is statistically, a lot more likely. And behind that is something we understand that isn’t covered in the New York Times. This is more fundamentally theological, and this is our business. We come to understand that even as New England was famously the first area of the United States, the first major region to be the subject of evangelism, it was also the first major region of the United States to undergo theological liberalization and eventually secularization.

A far more secular reality is now in place in New Hampshire as well as generally in the entire Northeast. So much so that what was at one point, the center of Christian influence in the United States is now the center of secular influence. And as we know, worldviews have consequences. Theology comes with consequences, and here we see it. The first thing this professor says to distinguish voters in New Hampshire, Republican voters from Republican voters in Iowa, is the matter of who goes to church or more specifically, who doesn’t go to church. Notice the way he put it. By the way, very few people go to church here or any kind of religious services regularly. So to his credit, he understands what he’s looking for. Is there a regular pattern of church identification, of some kind of demonstration, of theological conviction by something as simple as going to church?

In New Hampshire he says, by and large, and he really makes that clear. By and large, the answer to that is no. And we come to understand that we can then predict the consequences. That means that there will be much less attention to the moral issues in the so-called social, cultural, moral category that concerns so many of the urgencies that drive Republican voters elsewhere. And we come to explain that by the fact that there are Christian convictions that must be translated into public policy. And you’ll notice the first issue he says isn’t so much an issue in New Hampshire is the first issue that is we expect regularly the first issue elsewhere, and that is abortion, the sanctity of human life. It also reminds us of the fact that a secularizing society virtually by definition begins to loosen all moral concerns about the sanctity of human life. That becomes very clear. Is the first thing this professor underlines by the way.

He goes on to say there are some social conservatives among Republicans in New Hampshire. He says this, “There are social conservatives, don’t get me wrong, but they do find themselves on the short end of the stick here.” Now, you might say that’s not the most scientific description, but we certainly do get the point. Now, as you’re looking at this, you recognize that there is another worldview dimension. There is another political tradition very much tied to New Hampshire, and that’s libertarianism, and that’s where we understand that the larger umbrella of the Republican Party has included as one of its component worldviews, many people who are committed to some kind of libertarianism. That means the human liberty is raised to the highest good, and thus there is an emphasis on avoiding laws and the encroachment of government on the personal liberties of individual citizens. But you also need to note that libertarianism really does begin to constrict or reduce the number of moral issues that government is allowed to address.

And this is one of the internal tensions within the Republican Party, and it is likely to become even more of an internal tension in years and election cycles ahead. You’ll recall that the professor said that for most Republican voters in New Hampshire, they just want to talk less about abortion. And he offered the hypothetical question from a New Hampshire Republican voter, “Do we really have to talk about it so much?” And of course, our response to that is, yes, we really do have to talk about it so much. And that’s one of the things we’ll be talking about actually after the New Hampshire primary results are in. And as the race pivots to other places like South Carolina. Voters in South Carolina are likely to raise the abortion issue to a far higher elevation than what we see in New Hampshire. By the way, New Hampshire basically offers a right to abortion up to 23 weeks of gestation.

Compare that to the state of Florida with Governor DeSantis at six weeks and many other states with Republican legislatures or governors where you have 15 weeks. 23 weeks, well, that just shows you that the voters in New Hampshire are quite different than the voters elsewhere. And the same thing’s true by the way of New Hampshire Republican political dynasties. I mentioned John Sununu, famously the governor of New Hampshire in the 1980s, later chief of staff in the Bush White House that is Bush ’41, but it is his own son, Chris Sununu, who’s the current governor. And as the current governor, largely a moderate on social issues, he has energetically very actively even urgently campaigned for Nikki Haley. He endorsed her for the Republican primary in his state. Will that matter? Well, we will see. We’ll see if a dynasty like the Sununu’s in New Hampshire really matters all that much these days.

And then of course, Nikki Hayley’s got a bigger problem after New Hampshire, the race is going to pivot to South Carolina where Trump is leading by double digits in the polls, and she will have to explain if indeed that primary goes as the polling indicates why she lost to Donald Trump in the state that had elected her governor. In one argument that is being made, Ron DeSantis dropped out of the race before he had to face that question himself with the Florida Republican primary. At least Ron DeSantis at this point is in no risk of losing that primary in 2024. Nikki Haley is if she makes it to South Carolina. But as I said, we’re really not going to know exactly what this means for the Republican nomination race until we get to South Carolina Super Tuesday and beyond. But if Donald Trump wins by a really big margin tomorrow, it’s going to be very hard to argue against his claim that he’s effectively sown up the Republican nomination.

But we are not going to count the votes until the votes are counted. When they are, we’ll consider what they mean. But I mentioned there was one footnote about the Democratic side. The Democratic Party didn’t intend to have a discussion of a Democratic primary in New Hampshire, but then representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota announced he was running for the Democratic nomination against an incumbent president of his own party. Does he have much of a chance? The answer is no, profoundly no, emphatically no. But Joe Biden’s not going to be on the ballot because the White House made the decision, or I should say the Biden campaign made the decision not to put his name on the ballot because it wouldn’t matter. But now it matters and it could be very embarrassing to an incumbent President of the United States for someone to claim to have won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire.

So there is an organized effort to try to write in President Biden’s name among democratic voters. Well, that work well, it seldom does, but it sometimes does. But in any event, it shows you that there’s a price to be paid for not putting your name on a ballot. But thinking about the Republican side, and now that we are basically down to two viable candidates and one of them with a commanding lead over the other, and that candidate, the former President of the United States coming with all the controversy, all the history, all the biography, all the scandals of Donald Trump.

Part III

Republican Voters Make a Choice — Will Trump Claim the Nomination as Inevitable? What Might that Mean?

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal offered an article yesterday entitled The 2024 Republican Choice. I think it’s a very important argument that the editors of the Wall Street Journal bring. And they’re basically saying, look, Republicans are going to have to decide what the future of the Republican Party is, and it’s going to happen at least in part in the snow of New Hampshire, and it’s going to happen tomorrow.

Now, the editors of the Wall Street Journal, a very responsible group. Just again hear that. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, it’s hard to imagine an establishment, more establishment than this. At the same time, the editorial board is generally conservative, and quite frankly, it has sometimes argued for candidates who were clearly identified as conservative, and that included social and moral issues. When it comes to Donald Trump, though, the editors raised some very important questions, and one of them is this, what would it mean for Republicans to renominate a candidate who would be a lame duck the very day he takes the oath of office? Donald Trump can’t run for another term that’s limited by the Constitution. And so if he is the nominee and if he is elected, he will be a lame duck from day one. That’s a very dangerous position for an incumbent President of the United States, and the editors of the Wall Street Journal are absolutely right to say the voters had better count the cost of electing a lame duck.

Regardless of who that is or the agenda or platform that candidate runs on. A lame duck is by definition a lame duck. No one is going to fear him in a second term. He’s not going to be able to carry through promises into a second term. And the way presidential politics works is that when you are even elected to a second term, your power begins to erode the day you take the oath of office for the second time. And in the last two years of a second four-year term, the entire political system is looking to who’s about to be president to the United States and who’s about to be former president. But the editors also raise a couple of other very, very important issues. And the most important of these is about the character and personality of Donald Trump and also his electability. It’s one thing to gain the Republican nomination, it’s another thing to be elected President of the United States.

That’s the lesson that Donald Trump learned, or at least should have learned in the 2020 presidential election. And the point is this, and even as the editors underline this, you’re looking at Iowa voters who said they were voting for Donald Trump. About 30% of them said they would not vote for him in the general election if he is convicted on any of the charges against him. And currently at least there are 91 felony charges alleged against the former president. So we do understand that this is a very volatile political question. It’s one thing to ask Republicans, how are you going to vote in a primary? It’s quite a different thing to ask American voters, how are you going to vote in the general election? And here’s the other big lesson of 2020, and you might say it was also the big lesson of 2016. The problem is the bitterness was on the Democratic side in 2016.

The bitterness was on the Republican side in 2020. All it takes is a shift of a certain percentage or margin of the suburban vote in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to throw the election. And of course, you’re looking at swing states beyond even just some of those suburban areas in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. But the big point is this, it’s a very volatile question to ask if Donald Trump should win the Republican nomination. And no doubt he’s the front-runner right now. The question is could he actually win a general election? Now, of course, you discount that by saying, well, look at Joe Biden. He’s old and comes with all kinds of liabilities, and it’s generally unpopular, yes, but it’s still a very open question. And it’s also interesting for us to note, and I think the Christian worldly helps to explain this. You often don’t really think about some things until you have to.

And a lot of voters aren’t going to think about some of these things until they have to in November of 2024. So many of them will actually do then something very different than they’re likely to tell a pollster they will or might do now. Time will tell. Another big looming issue over a Trump presidency would be whether or not he can staff it. That’s a very legitimate question. An awful lot of the people who served in the first Trump administration and in particular in the White House and in the Justice Department, many of those people are now having to pay an awful lot of money to lawyers because they found themselves entangled in a legal process. The question is, are there people who will take the risk of working in the Trump administration? And again, most particularly in the White House and in the Department of Justice, the answer is almost assuredly yes, there will be.

But by definition, those people will be the people who would take the position under those circumstances. And right now we don’t even know what those circumstances might be. Certainly convictions on these criminal charges might have a lot to do with answering that question. But then there is another issue, and that is the United States Senate. The question is to who holds the house? Well, even in recent weeks, the Republicans have been leaking power in the house. Removing Representative Santos was one of those issues. There have been some other exits. It’s a very difficult situation, and I think the new Republican Speaker of the House is doing a very good job trying to hold that Republican coalition together and to try to hold a Republican majority in the house. But the fact is it’s going to be an uphill climb.

On the Senate side, Republicans are in the driver’s seat at least looking at the shifts in the Senate and the seats open in 2024. The problem is that shifts to the opposite side in 2026. Just two years later, if Republicans gain control of the Senate in the 2024 cycle, there’s reason to believe Republicans will. We have to hope that. But if Republicans do that in 2024, it’s just going to accentuate the importance of 2026 when the likelihood of a shift to the Democrats is far more possible. And that’s simply a matter of the fact that the seats coming open are seats held by Republicans. That is the majority of them, and many of them are likely to be contested seats. So the question is, what will Donald Trump’s presidency look like in a second term when he can’t run for another term and the Senate’s likely to turn to democratic control? Or at least that is a huge looming threat.

Those are big questions. Now, I also have to say in response to these arguments that at least when it comes to say the factor of Joe Biden, that’s not going to change regardless of the Republican candidate. When it comes to the 2026 Senate races, many of them really aren’t going to matter when it comes down to who is the President and if a Republican president is in office at that time. But those questions still loom large. It’s just a reminder of the fact that nothing is uncomplicated. And when you get to a potential administration put together by Donald Trump, it gets very complicated. On the other hand, we also have to recognize, and here I think the editors of the Wall Street Journal are right again. Our political system, our constitutional order is incredibly resilient, and there’s no reason to believe that that resilience will all of a sudden come to an end by election day of 2024.

That’s frankly painting too dark a picture, and that’s too pessimistic, an estimate of the American people and the strength of America’s political and constitutional government. And it’s also important to recognize that even as the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal says, look, this is a big question tomorrow in New Hampshire. We need to recognize we really do go into this election day tomorrow, primary election day in New Hampshire tomorrow, pretty much knowing how it’s going to turn out. Frankly, we’ve known pretty much how we should expect the national ticket on both sides to look by the time we get to the fall. There is a question, of course, about the vice presidential slot on the Republican side, but frankly, when it comes to the top of the ticket, I think most of us have pretty much had a very clear idea of what it’s going to look like in November.

The big question is, all right, now, how do we figure that out? But before we get there, we do have to go through New Hampshire, and that’s what’s going to happen today. Some of the piles of snow there may be high, but as we know politically, morally, culturally well, the stakes are even higher.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can call me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to spts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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